Scribner, 640 pages
There I sat in a hotel on my honeymoon: my beloved napping next to me, a bright blue book in my lap and tears streaming down my face. The bright blue book was Cloud Cuckoo Land, the latest novel by Pulitzer prize-winning fiction writer Anthony Doerr.
In his characteristic writing style, Doerr interweaves five narrators who exist in three distinct timelines: Constantinople in the 15th century, a small town in present-day Idaho, and an interstellar ship decades from now. While set in different times and places, each narrator explores the sense of hopelessness that is, in varying degrees, a part of the human experience. And because Doerr is an expert when it comes to language, you viscerally experience each character’s pain — what it feels like to be an outcast, to lose the person or creature who made you feel seen, to go to sleep afraid of what tomorrow will bring. While reading this book, I turned to my partner after almost every chapter and said, “this book is so sad.”
And yet, hope shows up in the quiet yet constant form of a good story. Each narrator encounters the (invented) manuscript Cloud Cuckoo Land written by the (real) ancient Greek author Antonius Diogenes. And as each character reads or hears about Aethon, a shepherd who leaves home in search of paradise and fails nearly every step of the way before ultimately succeeding, an amazing thing happens — they remember their own strength, and they are able to persevere.
Beyond the power of a story in the life of a reader, Doerr also explores how stories come to be — not how they are written, but how they are passed down. Cloud Cuckoo Land imagines all the hands that touched ancient scrolls to ensure their survival and the work of modern interpreters to translate texts while maintaining their integrity.
Doerr’s reverence for texts from antiquity as well as the ancient Greek sentences included in the novel took me back to my days studying and tutoring Greek in seminary. I thought of all the scribes who copied Paul’s letters and the Gospels and the prophets. I thought of the mistakes they made, and the edits added — many of which we’re still discovering. I thought of the monks throughout Europe who spent their days creating copies of the Bible as works of art. I thought of the scholarship that continues today, discerning the stories of translation.
I did not ultimately enjoy Cloud Cuckoo Land as much as I have enjoyed Doerr’s other works. The incredible scope of this novel feels just beyond the control of the author, who is usually so precise with his craft. Yet, all the same, I would recommend the novel as a thought-provoking exploration of the power of stories, a theme that is central to Christianity. After all, when it comes to the miracle of physical text surviving millennia, when it comes to a story that meets its readers in their hopelessness and empowers them to continue on, we, as Christians, know something of this, do we not? I would, however, recommend a more lighthearted book for your honeymoon!
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